Wednesday,19 June, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1346, (25 - 31 May 2017)
Wednesday,19 June, 2019
Issue 1346, (25 - 31 May 2017)

Ahram Weekly

After the Riyadh conference

Riyadh doesn’t so much crown as begin a new departure in international relations, one that should be grasped and its fruits realised with no time to lose, writes Abdel-Moneim Said

As I’m writing this, delegations from numerous countries are preparing to come to Riyadh to attend a summit — or several summits — that, to the best of my knowledge, have never before been held in this manner. The information published on the agenda and activities indicate that there will be three types of meetings. The first will take place bilaterally between Saudi Arabia and the US, the second multilaterally between the US and the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the third, also multilaterally, between the US and Islamic countries. In spite of the fact that the three are consecutive and each has its own priorities in terms of the items that are the object of discussion and give-and-take, they are also interrelated, as the Arab countries form a special type of forum and, at another level, each state in the Arab world or the Islamic world has its own special relationship with Saudi Arabia, which is situated in the centre of that huge network of strategic as well as cultural and religious relationships.

However, form alone cannot make this occasion unique. The substance, too, is unprecedented in the history of international and regional relations. Although the agenda is packed and participants will probably want to add to it items of concern to their own countries, the focal point in the list is the relationship of Islam and the Muslim people with the world in which we live. The world, here, is represented by the US with its entire gamut of hard and soft powers and its network of economic and security relations stretching across the planet and into outer space. No other country can compare.

The Islamic world is represented by its major powers which are bearers of a religious message that terrorists and barbarians are trying to steal and use in order to sow anarchy throughout the world. True, there are other hotspots (the South China Sea and North Korea for example) and there are other countries in states of turmoil (Venezuela). But the Middle East and the war against terrorism are still the focus of international relations at present. These international relations are converging in condensed form in Riyadh.

Note that the American guest only knows the Arab region and the Middle East through an economic connection in the form of the Trump Towers. Remember too that during his electoral campaign he was not all that friendly towards Arabs and Muslims, and he had no problem with pronouncing threats against them, as he did against Mexicans and Latinos. Nevertheless, during the past three months, the US president has begun to show a willingness to grasp and accommodate to the realities and complexities of the Middle East, a process that occurred in the course of successive visits by Arab and Muslim heads of states to Washington. These leaders carried with them the influence of the Arab and Islamic world in terms of its major holy places, the cultural and civilisational heritage of their peoples, and their countries’ networks of relations and growing shared interests that have built up between them and the US over past decades. They also represented the countries that have sustained the lion’s share of the burdens and tragedies of the war against terrorism (90 per cent of the victims of terrorism are Muslim).

Anyone who analyses the US president’s statements or speeches over the past few months will note the marked decline in the aggressiveness of his rhetoric and increased willingness to build on common interests, sell arms, freeze the move of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and to participate more directly in the war against terrorism. Such changes would not have occurred had it not been for Arab political and diplomatic efforts and, above all, the roles played by Saudi Arabia, with its weight as the home to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, and by Egypt, in view of the part it plays in the war against terrorism and in the process of renovating religious discourse through the auspices of Al-Azhar.

That Trump has dedicated his first visit abroad to a tour that covers Saudi Arabia, Israel and the Palestinian National Authority, and the Vatican in a powerfully symbolic affirmation of the relationship between the three divinely revealed religions and a departure from the general outlook in the US that sees only two, under the heading of the “Judeo-Christian tradition”. The Riyadh summit is the first step in international relations towards underscoring and profiling the common spiritual substance of the three divinely revealed faiths: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Promoting a constructive, anti-violent and anti-terrorist relationship between Islam and the world is the essence of the meetings in Riyadh. That essence raised the need for “higher strategies” which, in turn, require other strategies and plans in order to anchor the higher strategies to the ground, and make them work. In fact, operations on the ground are already in progress between the US and the Arab Islamic states participating in the Riyadh summit, whether in the framework of front against Iran, the fight against terrorism or the struggle to realise stability in a region that has been torn and wearied by civil wars and domestic rifts. Therefore, the meetings not only offer an opportunity for revision and assessment, but also mark the beginning of the path to completing a mission. This mission is not just about the relationship between Muslims and the world, it is also about reviving stability in the region, a goal that can only be attained by reinstating the authority and prestige of “the state”, establishing security throughout the region by bringing an end to the civil war in Syria, and setting the Arab-Israeli conflict on course to a political settlement.

Accordingly, the Riyadh meetings are not the end of a road, the crowning of a process, or a mere revival of previously existing relations. They are an unprecedented beginning of an unprecedented path. It is no secret that the major Arab powers in the Middle East are involved in domestic reform processes, whether beneath the title “Vision 2030”, as in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, or other titles. It is also obvious that such processes cannot succeed in the absence of a regional and international climate conducive to their progress. In other words, there can be no reform or construction in an environment where security is under threat and hot and cold wars are rife. This in turn means that every step towards regional stability will make domestic development possible and promising. The keys to this are to be found in putting the wars in the region, whether in Syria, Yemen or Libya, on the path to resolution and the restoration of legitimacy, and putting the major crises in the region — such as the Arab-Israeli conflict — on path to a settlement.

As difficult and complex as the roads to legitimacy and to peace may appear, we have a wealth of international resolutions and initiatives to draw on and, sometimes, to abide by. The Riyadh conference, in form and content, seems to have given the starting signal for the march to commence or, otherwise put, it gave a long-stalled motor a much needed kickstart.

Whatever the case, it takes more than warmth and friendliness for conferences to succeed. There has to be a sufficient degree of impetus and dynamism in order to overcome historic obstacles and dilemmas. Frankly, the Arab and Islamic world can no longer afford to waste time.

The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.

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